Angela’s Army

Youth campaign against volunteer military. Berlin, August 2012.

This sticker, the first in a series from the German Left Party’s youth outreach campaign that Souciant will be featuring in the weeks to come, provides a biting critique of the career opportunities —The Clash’s song by that name is brought to mind — in Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr. Even as it mobilizes nostalgia for its more egalitarian past:

“The Army. Career with a future?” the top of the sticker asks. Below the photo of the flag-draped coffin, it offers the slogan “Kein Werben für Sterben,” which translates as “Stop advertising death.” It’s that last part that stands out, making it clear that this is a message of recent vintage. Because it is only in the last two years that the Bundeswehr has had to market itself.

For better or worse, manhood in postwar Germany was powerfully shaped by the obligation to serve one’s country. Both in the East, where the German Democratic Republic’s army was kept as large as possible to offset the Federal Republic of Germany’s population advantage, and in the West, where this overcompensation had to be answered in kind, conscription was a fact of life for nearly all young men. Once they had finished the equivalent of high school, the majority would spend considerable time dealing with the routines of military life.

It has been said that nothing is more tedious than being a soldier. But when the frustrations and fears that come with the job are shared with one’s fellow citizens, they often become the foundation of lifelong friendships, not to mention a source of collective pride. Even though most soliders can’t wait for their call of duty to be over, they often look back on the time as a crucial stage in their personal development and, what is more, one that binds them to their countrymen — and, more recently, women — like nothing else.

This is surely true, both of armies sustained by conscription and those comprised exclusively of volunteers, such as the United States has had since the 1970s. However, since volunteers often come from the lower echelons of society, joining the military because they don’t have other good options in life, the solidarity that results is of a markedly different character than the sort forged in places where conscription is theoretically universal. Burdens are easier to bear when everyone, regardless of race, class or education, is required to bear them.

If we bear this history in mind, this Left Youth sticker can be construed, not as an attack on the military per se, but its perceived Americanization in the wake of the Federal Republic’s decision to stop conscription, which finally came to a halt in the summer of 2011. While you might think that leftists would welcome a transformation of the Bundeswehr that would reduce its size, and also pay soliders better, the deeper implication of these changes is too troubling to gloss over.

In other words, the sticker’s message is consistent with the sort that American groups have levied, if less forcefully, at the relentless advertising of the armed forces, particularly the US Army’s insidious “Be all that you can be” campaign. Given the Left Party’s origins in the East, and their extreme distaste for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative leadership, stirring up the anti-American sentiment lurking just beneath the surface of German society makes a great deal of sense.


Commentary and translation from the German by Charlie Bertsch. Photographed in Berlin by Joel Schalit.

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